Could BRT replace the Second Ave. Subway?


As this week of bad news for the Second Ave. Subway draws to a close, we return again to a question of transit on the Upper East Side? As they do every time another SAS delay is announced, Streetsblog advocated for a BRT solution to the Second Ave. problem. But is that a realistic replacement for a full Second Ave. subway?

In rehashing their BRT argument for Second Ave. — one they explored in February — Ben Fried and Streetsblog made a rather bold claim. “On the east side of Manhattan,” Fried writes, “the right BRT configuration would carry almost as many commuters as the Second Avenue Subway, for a fraction of the cost.”

The Overhead Wire jumped all over this one. Pantograph Trolleypole, the pseudonymous author of TOW, did not believe this Streetsblog claim to be an accurate statement. While calling the BRT option “inferior transit,” the Wire levels this charge:

For a fraction of the cost you get a fraction of the ridership and a fraction of the service. How many buses and how many Union wages would it take to get that level of service? Let’s all imagine how much it would cost operationally to carry ~7 million daily subway riders on buses every day in addition to the 2.3 million people that already ride buses in New York. Let’s see what kind of a city New York would be without the Subway. There is a specific crowding issue that needs to be addressed on the east side and if you amortize that $5 billion over the lifetime of the tunnels it is well worth the investment over centuries of use.

Forgetting the seven million figure, let’s look at some real numbers. According to the Second Ave. Subway environmental impact statement, the MTA estimates that 200,000 riders a day will use just Phase I of the new line. When — or if — the whole line is completed, the MTA believes that 500,000 a day will rely on some part of the Second Ave. Subway. Some of those will be new riders while others will be eschewing the overcrowded Lexington Ave. line for an emptier, more convenient train.

Let’s assume that, for a bus-rapid transit lane on Second Ave., the MTA uses the current high-capacity ride in its fleet. The articulated buses can fit 145 passengers. To meet the demand of just 200,000 passengers, the MTA would have to run around 58 buses per hour for 24 hours. Simply put, that’s impossible. To cover even half of the projected 200,000 for Phase I, the MTA would have to run a bus every two minutes throughout the day. We can’t even consider meeting the 500,000 projected number for a full line.

In the end, bus-rapid transit along Second Ave. probably should be implemented but not as a replacement for a subway. It should be implemented because it will cut down on the space available to cars and eliminate drivers while encouraging mass transit. It will provide an area of the city not too near a subway with a better option than the 4/5/6. But as the numbers show, BRT cannot replace a subway line. It can’t meet the demand, and it can’t do what the MTA wants the Second Ave. Subway to do.

As the city grows and the current subway system reaches capacity, we need to add transit options that allow for this expansion. While far more expensive, a subway can service more people than BRT. That’s what we need along Second Ave.

19 Responses to “Could BRT replace the Second Ave. Subway?”

  1. Andrew says:

    It’s worse than that. I don’t see why 58 buses per hour (or about one bus per minute) is impossible. But the 200,000 riders per day won’t be evenly distributed over 24 hours – there are going to be peaks during the rush hours and a trough at night.

    And the frequency of buses that would be required during rush hours would be unsustainable. (And extremely expensive, with a driver required for each bus.) If your numbers are correct, the capacity of an articulated bus is equal to the capacity of a 60-foot car – ten of which make up a train. So if the plan is, say, to run 10 trains per hour during Phase I, that translates to 100 buses per hour, or a sustained headway of 36 seconds. Ouch.

    And that’s all in addition to whoever would be riding the bus after SAS opens (mostly people going shorter distances, I suppose).

    Of course, the actual numbers wouldn’t be quite so high. Even the best BRT system, unless it uses a grade-separated busway, would be far slower than a subway line. Even if buses never have to interact with other traffic on 2nd Avenue, they still would have to stop for red lights to let cross traffic (including other buses!) cross. The end result would be far less attractive. Ridership would be far lower. So much for relieving the Lex.

    Let’s go for the subway line. Even if it takes a while to build.

    • Between loading times, red lights and other assorted delays, it’s pretty much impossible to run 58 buses in 60 minutes. That doesn’t, as you point out, allow for staggered timing. Rush hour would require far more buses than that.

  2. rhywun says:

    If the BRT meets a need on 2nd Ave that isn’t currently being met, it should absolutely be built. The fact that it will eventually be replaced by a subway… some… day… is irrelevant.

  3. Harlan says:

    Uh, they don’t have to run a bus every minute on the same street. There are something like eight avenues on the UES. Still a lot of buses and drivers, though.

    • George says:

      This is BRT. Its not as simple as running some buses over an alternate street. Not to mention the fact that those are all one-direction avenues, which means that the amount of options up there are actually cut in half.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      Well, if the point is to compensate for the lack of a Second Avenue Subway, there aren’t eight avenues available. There are only four, because those closer to Lexington would of course use the existing subway.

      • Andrew says:

        East End and York don’t run through to Midtown. First and Third are northbound. Second is southbound. Those are your options.

  4. Bill Reese says:

    Is it too late to rebuild the Third Avenue El?

  5. Kai says:

    BRT can never replace subway. Where are we living here? Boston?

  6. anonymouse says:

    Oh it can be done all right, you just have to do it like in Bogota. This means, firstly, turning the entire roadway of Second Avenue to buses to build a four-lane busway with stations. This means no cars on Second Avenue, nor bikes. Secondly, it requires closing as many cross streets as possible, most likely all but the major crosstown streets. Maybe they’ll put in overhead or underground pedestrian crossings, maybe they won’t. In any case, it will be a huge new barrier dividing the Upper East Side, possibly impacting businesses on the avenue (permanently, unlike subway construction), and generally getting in everyone’s way.

    • Andrew says:

      The reason a subway line is so expensive is that it’s shoved underground so that it doesn’t disrupt stuff at street level (aside from construction, of course). If we’re willing to allow a street-level barrier, the “subway” line can run at street level.

  7. AW says:

    Or, the idea is not to think about BRT as a replacement for a subway, but as a cost effective public transport mode that works, is cheaper, and can be done faster. SAS to Wall Street aint happening – not even close – so why not consider an alternative?

    • Andrew says:

      BRT from the Upper East Side to Wall Street would take far longer than the Lex. Nobody would ride it for such a distance.

      Forget all four phases of SAS. Phase 1 connects the core of the eastern Upper East Side to West Midtown. That alone will take a huge load off the Lex. Wall Streeters will transfer or continue to walk to the Lex.

      There’s your alternative.

  8. herenthere says:

    Hmm…I had a feeling that it was a little lacking…so much for my tirade at SkyscraperCity past few days. But still – BRT does save a lot of electricity + maintenance costs.


    • Alon Levy says:

      On the contrary: the operating costs of buses are higher than those of subways. Rubber tires need replacement more often than steel wheels; one driver per 100 riders costs more than an engineer and conductor per 1,000 riders; buses have a shorter shelf life than trains. The reason buses are used at all is that they have lower capital costs, and on low-ridership lines the extra capital costs of building a subway are much higher than the savings in operating costs.

  9. ardecila says:

    While I don’t think BRT is a permanent solution for the UES, it does seem like MTA is managing the street surface of 2nd Avenue terribly. In building the launch box, contractors are pussy-footing around traffic, using complicated staging that is sharply raising the cost that all US taxpayers will be responsible for.

    I want MTA to take two lanes of 2nd Ave and restripe them for buses as a temporary express-bus system. This will help to relieve the Lexington and to increase the throughput of 2nd Ave. Then, in the launch box zone, SHUT DOWN 2nd Ave to all but those buses, leaving only two lanes open and the remainder of the street dedicated to excavation. Or, even better yet, put the bus lanes on 1st Ave and close 2nd completely.

    Local businesses will complain. Buy them out. It’s only a few blocks’ worth, and it’s got to be cheaper than this incredibly complex and weak traffic staging. Hell, if they can close Broadway through Times Square, they can narrow 2nd Ave to 2 bus-only lanes for a short segment.

    New York traffic is some of the worst on the planet, but if this subway line is so important, Manhattan should be willing to pay the price of a multi-year street closure to get it.

  10. anonymous says:

    How about this alternative? Cheaper than a subway and can be built faster, and provides better service than bus rapid transit. Also doesn’t usurp any more road space.

  11. Dale says:

    The only problem I have with any on-street transportation solution is that it will still be subject to the traffic on the street. How many times do you see intersections jammed with traffic? Is that really going to change with more mass transit, I doubt it. Taxis and trucks aren’t going to be going away anytime soon and I think that traffic alone is enough to easily jam up critical intersections. That traffic is going to block, buses or trollies or light rail. The won’t block the subway… well, unless the tunnel collapses and the cars fall into the hole, which given the aging infrastructure it becoming more of a likelihood.

    Ultimately, you need a system for cars and trucks, and one, separate for mass transit. Whatever form that mass transit is in.

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